Chapter Five: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

5. My Grandmother Zivana, my Grandmother Lile

In my mother’s family, by contrast, death was never considered possible. My grandma would always say, if somebody died:

- Oh death is a lie, God is the truth.

She used to tell me this story as a proof:

A man in her hometown died. Then, after a day, while he was lying there on display as is common in the decent houses of southern Serbia, as the mourners stood around him in his own house, eating and drinking and wailing, suddenly the dead man opened his eyes and came to his senses.

Then he told his amazed guests what had happened to him. He’d been conducted through dungeons in a dark place under the earth, where a man was sitting behind a desk, in an office. The dead man had been dressed very properly, in a suit and tie, exactly as he was dressed here now, on display, in his own coffin.

He had to approach the man behind the desk, walking across a red carpet.

The man lifted his cold eyes and asked him, are you Nikola Petrovic? The deceased man said, sure I am.

The death clerk looked at him more carefully.

- How old are you?

Our man said, 54.

The man behind the desk stood up angrily and shouted at his escort:

- What on earth have you done, this is the wrong Nikola Petrovic, not the one who was supposed to come here!

The escort was really upset. He ushered out the deceased man in a hurry, still in his funeral clothes, led him to the air and space and here he is now, breathing and talking.

He rose from his coffin. His wife embraced him, weeping with joy, and his mother too. The children were slightly afraid.

The funeral turned out into a feast which lasted for three days, as was planned for proper funerals. At the end of the third day, while the former mourners were properly tired and drunk, some news arrived. On the other side of town, an eighty year old Nikola Petrovic had died.

I never doubted my grandma’s stories. But I asked: was his suit really from the underworld?

- Of course it was, nobody in southern Serbia at that time wore the English tweed suit and a Burberry.

When my dad brought our first TV set home, I was making dinner with my grandma Zivana, meaning Viva in Serbian. That name suited her like a glove: until her very last day she stayed alive in the full sense of that word. Blind, she listened incessantly to the radio Half crippled, she tottered through the house using a chair as support. She refused doctors, hospitals and operations, as a matter of course. Zivana had cataracts and a broken hip, so she limped in the dark with her hands outspread, but she used to say:

- This is my home, I know every bit of it, I built it and I lived in it. Children, for heaven’s sake, let me die, let me die at home, I must die of something.

Because her children were doctors, who wanted to operate on her, cure her…

She died when she was nearly ninety, with many grandchildren, some of whom she raised herself. All of her peers were already dead and some of her own children, too. Others were broken in many ways. Communism had taken a toll of that old landowning family with its fertile lands, horses, cattle and lordly manners, which were considered decadent, rather than merely primitive. My cousin, a man of an older generation, married a very nice, educated girl from Belgrade, after raping her in a train. He was a handsome, intelligent guy, and his pregnant bride came to terms with the marriage. Still, though, sometimes she would tell us, the younger girls in his family, how cruelly he treated his own daughter.

Well my grandma cared little enough for the old ways of life. Once communism came to power, she became keenly interested in Marshal Tito. Grandma much admired Tito’s fine uniforms, his elegant white officers’ gloves, and his weird accent that belonged to no specific Yugoslav region. Tito spoke like a foreigner schooled in Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, and Macedonian, who had never quite captured any proper accent. His careful dress and regular features promised a proper, respectable country with severe political manners. And Tito did fulfill some of that promise, in exchange for a population that was silent and well-behaved. Tito raised big international credits. He made people buy cars and bananas. The people could travel abroad, east and west, with one of the best passports in the world at the time. Life was secure if one never meddled in politics.

When my father brought the TV home, my aunt commented:

- How ugly this box is, like a power meter.

Being an incorrigible anticommunist, though a great fan of aristocratic white gloves, my aunt commented about TV news: How come all of Tito’s friends are black and dictators?

My vital grandma, her mother, hushed her scornfully:

- Oh shut up woman! Look how well we are living again! You even finally have your own flat, and one day you will earn a pension. True, for a kulak renegade like my aunt, this was an achievement. But only those who were masters knew how to serve, and my aunt could never settle for new communist commodities after having once been a true lady.

I never got much about those arguments between mother and daughter. I loved them both, for spending time with them was a holiday, compared to time spent with my Mom, whom I loved best yet feared most. Just as they did. Though Mom was by far the youngest, she was the one in power. She was the empress of whatever this new world was made of. Only she knew the rules properly, those unwritten rules which could cost your life. She seemed not only to know those rules by heart, but to invent them from her heart.

So Mom would explain to them, severely, at the end of the day, why Tito’s friends were black men, and why his gloves were white, and why their religion was the opium of people. She was also the accomplished mistress of many other things intruding on their daily reality, which her mother and sister were hard-put to handle. Such as televisions, cars, and washing machines.

My mother came to them one day with a new vacuum cleaner.

- There, she said, this machine and the washing machine are the two authentic female liberation discoveries of the twentieth century. Next to the antibiotics! (which she gave us on regular basis, to prevent the existence of germs).

Then she would switch on the TV, to admire her favorite handsome TV news presenter. My father was promptly and bitterly jealous of him, though he never admitted that publicly.

One day, my grandma and I were alone and she switched on the TV. There on the screen a cook, properly dressed in spotless white, was baking cakes, and finally whipping the thick white cream. I stared at him in awe, saliva dripping at the corners of my tiny, four-year-old mouth. Cakes were prohibited to me, for I ate nothing but cakes if allowed.

My grandma took up a crystal plate and humbly approached the television, with this words:

- Sir, will you be so kind to hand one piece of cake to my granddaughter. She promised she will eat her dinner, after all.

I watched dumbfounded. I think I knew real people were not inside the box, but after this miracle! The cook seemed to hesitate…panic stricken, I fled the room. What if my mother found out, she would spank me for eating cake from unknown people…and my grandma would get a hard scolding for misbehaving in the new society.

When Mom switched on the TV and watched with that particular smile on her face, her handsome baritone reader, presenting the communist news… News in which everything was fine in the world, because the proletariat was conquering it day by day, and step by step, and social justice was about to defeat all poverty and class discrimination… I thought she would leave my father some day, enter that box and never come out again.

Because my father never spoke as cheerfully as that guy in the box. My father was lamenting angrily at new rules which made his work impossible. He declared that the party comrades ignored reality. My mother countered that reality as such did not exist, but was a matter of interpretation and transformation.

I heard Yugoslav couples fighting and even divorcing over famous literary authors, over the preeminence of Andric versus Crnjanski. Like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, these writers were symbols of two different classes and two conflicting styles. Yet they were both true voices of their time and place, and its contradictory values. My parents fought over reality. My mother fought for justice, and my father for prosperity.

We needed both, and we never got both. My parents never managed to agree — and not only them.

My other grandmother, Lile, that big Herzegovinian grandma puzzled me all my life. I don’t believe that I ever loved her, or that she ever loved me. That was the state of affairs in Herzegovinian families. Women rarely loved each other, or even helped each other to manage the day. They might be close relatives, living cheek by jowl day and night, only to fight for a place at the table or for room in the bed.

The more you fight the more you get, and if you fail to grasp for life, you deserve to perish. In Herzegovina, if a woman lost her men and inherited a household, she wore a man’s clothes. These tough-minded widows cut their hair and chewed tobacco: tall, hard-working, bossy women.

My grandma Lile, according to one story, was abducted by my grandfather, literally ravished and carried off. The violent old man imprisoned his young bride in his home, where she gave him six surviving children, the first two being twins. He was such a disgraceful, abusive old reprobate that rumor claimed that he bedded his daughter-in-law and denied fatherhood to his last son. That child would be my father. Now what does that story make of me, a bastard of a bastard, an invisible female bastard?

According to an entirely different family story, Lile eloped with my rich grandfather, a man twice her age. To flout the will of her family, they staged her abduction and they lived happily.

My mother used to tease cruelly my father:

- Maybe a Jew crossed your mother’s path. Lile always boasts how you are fair and bright and know a lot about money.

My father, when I was born, ventured to the clinic to make sure that I really was his child. Somehow, the doctor reassured him. My mother found that out, and she never forgave him.

Grandma Lile would just wave her hand at these dreadful legends and legacies. Lile grew very old, yet she was still red-haired, curly, blue eyed and stately. She buried her husband, whatever his crimes, as she buried most of her children. As for my mother, who cared for that tiny worker-bee, buzzing around…

Written by

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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